Archive for September, 2008

‘Gwyr was dead,’ I said. ‘Elidyr brought him back. So is he now living on borrowed time?’

‘It depends on the consequences,’ Guiwenneth said. ‘He might live to be old. Elidyr might take him back tomorrow. It all depends.’ She looked up at me with a smile. ‘I like your words, Christian.’

‘What words?’

‘Living on borrowed time! It’s a good way to talk about the gift Elidyr has given to Gwyr …’

‘Thank you.’

‘You use so many wonderful images in your talk …’

‘I do?’

They make my head spin. So soothing and charming, so … unusual.’

Clichés, I thought, but said, ‘I’m glad.’

‘I loved the way you talked about our fist night together, by the river, by the fire.’

‘Remind me.’

You said that it was like … like a midsummer night’s dream …’

‘Ah …’

‘And that’s just how it seemed!’

‘It did,’ I said. ‘I can’t deny it.’

‘You have such a way of using words to make visions. Sometimes when you speak, it’s like listening to a poet.’

‘It is,’ I agreed. ‘I certainly can’t deny that either.’

Source: Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn by Robert Holdstock.

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Gate of Ivory, Gate of HornThis is the fourth novel in the Mythago Wood series, and, as with its two predecessors, it repeats the basic story of the original book – which is to say that the central character journeys into the mysterious depths of Ryhope Wood in search of a member of his family. There are a couple of differences here, though: firstly, it’s a prequel, the events occuring a little before those in Mythago Wood, the main character being Christian Huxley following in the footsteps of his father, but actually much more interested in the red-haired girl Guiwenneth; the second distinction is that (as far as I can recall) there is much more humour (and character interaction for that matter) in Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn.

As usual, the great thing about this Mythago book is the lightness of touch in the writing – it’s straightforward yet evocative. And at less than 350 pages it’s by no means a slog to get through it. In addition, you have the USP, if you will, of the series – the nature of the fantasy is that, while Ryhope Wood appears to a modest English countryside wood from the outside, if you manage to penetrate it you find a near-infinite forest populated with ‘mythagoes’ – prototypical mythical characters: Arthurs, Robin Hoods etc. These figures aren’t the romantic protagonists we would recognise from our stories, but are older versions more akin, perhaps, to the original reality.

The central mythago in Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn is Kylhuk – a version of Culhwch. Christian gets caught up in his story – as do seemingly every other mythago Kylhuk encounters. Kylhuk’s army, Legion, is full of ur-warriors and ur-sorcerers from forgotten legends and is dogged by myriad antagonists. The novel – and Christian’s association with Legion – begins with death and returns to death at it’s conclusion.

This circularity plus the novel’s humour and the impetus given to the narrative by Christian’s relationship with Guiwenneth and the other mythagoes makes Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn probably the strongest in the series up to this point. It’s been a while since I read the others, so I can’t quite compare them accurately – and it’s frustrating that I can’t fit the story of this novel together with Mythago Wood. If it weren’t for the repetitiveness of the stories, the Mythago cycle would easily be the best British fantasy series (not that I can think of another British fantasy series off hand).

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KokoIt’s been a while since I began a review by saying that the book in question was a recommendation of Stephen Donaldson’s, but, once again, this is true. Peter Straub is most familiar in my mind for having collaborated with Stephen King – and I’ve seen one film adapted from one of his books (it had Alice ‘Borg Queen’ Krige in it, and, bizarrely enough, an aged Fred Astaire).

Koko is a Vietnam War thriller with horror overtones … although it’s not set in Vietnam (except for a few flashbacks). Michael Poole is the main character, now a ‘baby doctor’, who teams up with some of his Vietnam comrades to track down a man who they believe is a serial killer. The recent murders echo killings done during the war where the victim is mutilated and is left with a card in his mouth marked with the word ‘KOKO’.

The novel didn’t engage me all that much for the first third or half of the story. I found the writing merely workmanlike, stodgy. This lack of interest was compounded by repeated confusions about the timeline. Very often, it seemed, there was little obvious distinction between the past tense narrative and the frequent flashbacks to earlier events.

After two or three hundred pages, the story gathered a little more momentum as the characters gradually unearth new pieces of information about Koko (as the killer is named) – and these pieces add up to successive revelations about his identity. There are also passages from Koko’s point of view, and passages that may be narrated by this character or by the man they originally think is Koko. It wasn’t made too clear. With the various perspectives employed, lots of hints are dropped about Koko’s true identity, and it all felt very heavy-handed. The book could well have been shorter and more tightly focussed.

Overall, not too bad, but not that good either.

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A couple of days on an island

The past weekend was Chuseok here in Korea. Chuseok is usually translated as Korean Thanksgiving – it’s a harvest festival and probably the main holiday of the year. Although Korea seems to use the western solar calendar for all normal purposes, Chuseok and Seolnal (Korean New Year) are calculated using the traditional lunar calendar, so they take place on different dates every year. (In a typical lack of Korean imagination the names of the months in both the lunar and solar calendars in Korea are nothing more than numbers: 일월 – Irwol – Month One; 이월 – Iwol – Month Two etc.)

Chuseok is a three-day holiday, but if it any of those days fall on a weekend, Korean workers don’t get extra days off the following. This year, Chuseok was Saturday to Monday. At English Castle we luckily enough had Tuesday off as well.

Botond invited me join him on a jaunt to some islands west of Seoul – in fact, where Incheon Airport, Korea’s main airport, is. He originally proposed staying two nights – from Sunday to Tuesday – but I suggested staying only one night because I wanted some genuine time off (which is to say some time without having to do anything at all). So we went on Monday and came back on Tuesday.

The fact that we travelled out while it was still Chuseok probably caused us some problems. We got the subway out to Incheon and then caught a taxi to a ferry port in the city which, it seemed to be indicated in Bo’s Lonely Planet Seoul, ran a service to island of Muui (Muuido). When we got there, of course, we found there wasn’t a service and we had to retrace our steps almost right back to the subway station to another ferry terminal.

The ferry took us to Yongjeongdo, the island on which the airport is built (on reclaimed land, I think). This island is largely countryside; here and there there are a few buildings, and closer to the airport there are some of the ubiquitous apartment blocks under construction amid the grass and trees. The bus we took stopped at the airport, causing us some confusion, but Bo asked one of the Korean passengers if it was going to Jamjindo, and it seemed that it was.

Jamjindo is a small island connected to Yongjeongdo by a causeway. The bus slowly made its way to Jamjindo through the holiday traffic. From there we got another ferry to Muuido – our destination. Once on the island we took another bus – without really knowing where it was heading, but I think it pretty much circles the island stopping at each of the resorts. Eventually we reached Hanagae beach – and decided this was where we were going to get off.

Huts on the beach were ₩30,000 each; huts set a little further back among the trees were ₩40,000 and came with a fridge and a shower – we rented one of these latter. With this done we went down to the beach and wandered through past a number of idyllic homes of the sort that (as far as I know – which probably isn’t very far) simply don’t exist in Korea – they were built for a TV programme called Stairway to Heaven.

Down at the beach itself I took some photos of a tiny mudskipper – it was about an inch and a half long (they always look bigger on TV). We watched a naval or coastguard hovercraft power up and struggle across the bay. When the tide started to come in we went for lunch.

The menu in the restaurant we settled on listed a number of things we didn’t know – and they all seemed to be ₩60,000 to ₩80,000. The cheapest thing was ₩10,000 so we got that. It turned out to be a big bowl of small, cockle-like shellfish in water (or a watery soup) heated over a burner. It was OK, but not that great. Not knowing what the dish was, we’d ordered two, so, on the way out, the ajuma who served tried to charge us for two, but then the other women working there corrected her.

Later we watched an awkward, black and white, surreally realistic film of Bo’s on my laptop. And after a walk along the beach at sunset (very romantic) we went to bed early.

Twelve hours later we got up went for a walk up one of the hills on the island. The lower part of the woods blanketing the island was crawling with crabs. These crabs were two or three inches across and had bright red-orange-yellow claws that they held up pugilistically when we disturbed them. They were the most obvious of a range of wildlife we encountered on the walk; there were also bright green caterpillars, big beetles, small snakes, and at one point I was checked out by a wasp approximately the size of an A380.

We left our resort once we got back and had a wash. There was some confusion as we tried to wait for a bus. Thinking we had missed it and had no idea when it might be back, we decided to walk along the coast, past a headland to the island Silmi. Then, as we set off, we were called back and invited into a people-carrier which was the next bus.

As we paid our entrance fee for the resort opposite Silmido we were told we should come back at 2pm when the tide came in. There isn’t really anything on Silmido – it’s far too small – but a film had been shot there about some soldiers who had been trained to assassinate Kim Il-sung; when their mission had been cancelled they all committed suicide. As you do.

At low tide the two facing beaches are connected by a little causeway of barnacle-encrusted boulders. This path is lined with barnacle-encrusted ropes held up by barnacle-encrusted poles. As there had been at Hanagae, there were a number of people poking about among the rocks and in the sand – presumably looking for shellfish. Whether this was their job or just holiday amusement can only be guessed at (some of these people were in work clothes, but by no means all).

We had lunch at a beach restaurant – galbi tang, which is to say, meat soup (not shellfish). There was a juvenile tom cat with a bit of plastic rope for a collar hanging around yowling. I fed him a few titbits of beef – he looked like he needed it.

On the way back home we decided to go via the airport – its anodyne modernity and cleanliness made a pleasant and somewhat bizarre contrast to the basic facilities of the beach resorts (in fact, they’d reminded me very much of the beaches I’d visited in India). Then we got the brand new train link to Gimpo Airport (it felt like travelling on an aeroplane – even down to the stewardesses) where we transferred to the subway and went home.

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Lest old acquaintance be forgot

I went down to Gangnam on Saturday to see Paul for only the second time in the three months I’ve been in Korea this time. We used to see each other every week for a few months because we went to the same Korean language hagwon. So the meeting was long overdue and was a very pleasant interlude after a couple of fairly stressful weeks of the new schedule.

Of possibly greater significance than spending time with a friend, was the fact that we went to Kyobo bookstore where I bought the new Metallica album, Death Magnetic. As we started looking at other things, the Metallica single ‘The Day that Never Comes’ came on over the PA; about a minute into the song the volume suddenly doubled – like it was being played just for us. I also bought The Essential Judas Priest (in a nice bit of synchronicity one of the tracks on Death Magnetic is called ‘The Judas Kiss’) … which I haven’t yet listened to or ripped to my computer.

Paul talked about wanting to resume his Korean classes and I’m tempted to join him, but my enthusiasm for that particular subject isn’t especially high. I’ve been thinking about doing French classes and taekwondo, but I haven’t got round to doing much about either. Maybe after next pay day.

There hasn’t been any roleplaying action since Peter left for the States. He sent Botond and me a couple of e-mails to continue the game, but there hasn’t been anything for a couple of weeks. I should e-mail him and ask how he’s doing. And I should start looking for other roleplayers.

And I haven’t heard much from people outside Korea recently. I should send out an e-mail with links to my new pictures.

There are many things I should do, but it’s too easy to let time pass by while I follow the same old rut.

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Guitar zero

Last weekend I told Botond that I wanted to buy a guitar. He spoke to his wife and came back with the suggestion that we go to a place near Insadong. I’ve seen the building a number of times, and walking round the area once I saw a number of music shops. The building in question is on stilts – which is to say that a road runs under it at ground level. Inside, it’s brimming with guitars, amps and all sorts of musical instruments and equipment. Wandering around you realise that the whole place is the size of a decent-sized shopping mall. There are countless individual glass-fronted shops and the space between is crammed with displays of guitars, pianos and speakers, leaving fairly narrow gangways for you to walk down.

Buying any one-off, expensive item is a pretty stressful experience and is a balancing act between looking at and testing various options and, on the other side, cutting through all the contemplation and dithering and plumping for something. Without Bo on hand I may well have just spent some time looking around and left to think about it – possibly indefinitely.

I tried a couple of guitars at one place, then a couple at another place. Then we went for coffee (well, I had coffee – Bo had every pastry at Starbucks). After another cicuit of the shopping centre, this time looking at small amps, we went back to the second place and I bought one of the guitars I’d tried there – a Gibson SG-style guitar (actually, it says Gibson and Epiphone on it, but I suspect it’s just a Korean rip-off).

Along with the guitar (₩200,000), at the same place I got an amp (actually a bass amp, but the man talked me into buying it after demoing it and another small guitar amplifier) and a Boss distortion pedal. The total bill was ₩300,000 and included a padded guitar bag, two cables, a strap, a packet of strings and a handful of picks.

New guitar

I’ve subsequently discovered that the guitar is ridiculously badly balanced: if you stand up with it on the strap the head end falls almost to the floor. I think I’d need to attach a metal plate to the body to weigh it down on that end. There are also a couple of bad frets where, if you pick the string it rasps against the next fret down (or up – I’ve never been sure how to refer to the neck- and bridge-end directions).

Still I didn’t need or want anything special, and I can see selling the guitar and amp and accessories (but not the distortion pedal) next year when I leave for maybe ₩100,000-150,000.

I haven’t been using the guitar excessively, but I’ve written a couple of cool riffs on it.

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Tales of the Dying EarthIt’s quite surprising to realise that the first book included in this omnibus, The Dying Earth was originally published in 1950, and so predates the publication of The Lord of the Rings by four or five years. On the other, the stories in this volume also somewhat resemble Robert E Howard’s Conan tales – although Vance’s work is much more whimsical. The other books in this collection are, The Eyes of the Overworld (1966), Cugel’s Saga (1983) and Rhialto the Marvellous (1984).

The Dying Earth is a collection of short stories, the first few of which comprise chapters in the life of Mazirian the Magician (which was Vance’s original title for the book), although, frustratingly, his tale is left seemingly unfinished and the stories move on to other characters. The actual title of the volume refers to the setting of all the stories contained herein: the dying Earth is a place of fantasy – magic and monsters – although it’s set many aeons in the future. And, in fact, it’s not the Earth that is dying but the sun. The sun is an aged red and flickers and falters, while on Earth the people are only a fraction of what they used to be, both in terms of numbers and knowledge.

The Eyes of the Overworld is a novel focusing on the trials and truibulations of its protagonist, Cugel the Clever (which was Vance’s original title for the book). Cugel is a charming thief who is initially outwitted by Iucounu, the Laughing Magician. As a punishment for trying to rob his manse, this wizard sends Cugel to a distant land to retrieve a pair of lenses which give the wearer a view into the Overland, a realm where everything mundane is represented as a kind of plutocratic utopia. To make matters worse, Cugel must find his own way back.

Cugel uses his eponymous cleverness to hoodwink those he meets, those who stand in his way. Unfortunately for him, most of the people he meets are out to get one over on him and usually do so before he understands what’s going on. In the next book in the omnibus, Cugel’s Saga, Cugel is outsmarted once again by Iucounu and has to make his long, arduous journey once again. This time, Cugel seems even more anti-heroic, more willing to steal and take advantage of people, but still his journey is one long series of three steps forward and two step back.

The final book of Tales of the Dying Earth is Rhialto the Marvellous, a collection of three novellas about a vain magician. Although Rhialto is less dishonest than Cugel, he’s also quite similar to the earlier hero. He’s a member of a council of magicians, each of whom, while maintaining a veneer of civility towards his fellows, is full of his own self-importance. The stories in this book are grander in nature, telling of life and death conflicts and missions to distant worlds.

Tales of the Dying Earth is a wonderful compendium of fantasy stories, glittering with invention and humour – no wonder it’s number 4 in the Fantasy Masterworks series. And I’ve just learned from Wikipedia that Vance’s Dying Earth stories were the inspiration behind many aspects of Dungeons’ and Dragons.

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As I suggested last week, I did go to a doctor’s on Friday. I procrastinated for a good while, but then finally set out for an ‘internal medicine’ clinic I’d seen nearby. The waiting room was pretty small, deserted but for me and the staff and bedecked in pictures of women – adverts, posters etc. I began to suspect that the doctor specialised in the wrong sort of internal medicine.

The doctor – a woman – spoke halting English, and told me that she couldn’t help me with my requests, but she directed me to another clinic above one of the banks at Bank Junction. So I went there.

As with the surgery I went to in Ansan, there were two doctors, a gastroenterologist and a cardiologist. I saw the cardiologist and he gave me a prescription for my sulfasalazine, and made an appointment for me to come in for a colonoscopy the following week (I’d been told to have one every year to keep an eye on things and check for bowel cancer).

After the consultation, a nurse gave me a little bottle of laxative – I shudder even to think of it again. She didn’t speak much English, and she took some time to try explaining when I was to take the two doses and what things I wasn’t supposed to eat in the meantime (corn and watermelon seeds).

After that I got my prescription (which seemed a fair bit more expensive than in Ansan) and headed to a dental clinic I’d noticed along my road. The name of this place was 런던 치과 – Reondeon Chigwa – London Dental Clinic. Its logo is a Union Jack in the wrong colours.

Inside, waiting in the waiting room, it turned out that the dentist had studied in Glasgow (assuming he named the clinic, he decided that Koreans would understand Geullaeseugo). The nurses at reception didn’t seem to speak any English, but they fetched the dentist and he was nearly fluent.

I had my teeth cleaned for ₩50,000 (about £25) and had a filling removed and redone for ₩5,000. (My opinion of the last dentist I saw, in St Helens, fell even further.) I thought I would also have some fillings at the visible edges of my teeth, where they go under the gums (which had some of which had been filled in St Helens but subsequently fallen out), but the dentist said they weren’t covered by insurance (and would cost ₩60,000 per filling) and suggested I come back another time.

On Monday evening, straight after my first day back at work I took the first dose of the laxative. It’s utterly vile stuff – it tastes kind of like sugary bleach. The previous times I’d taken a laxative like this (I’m not sure that it was exactly the same type), my bowels had opened in fairly short order to allow all the water I’d had to drink to gush through. This time, however, the laxative’s effect was much less dramatic. I sat on the toilet with my laptop and watched a couple of episodes of Dexter (a fantastic programme that I’ve recently started watching) – and very little happened faeces-wise.

It was only several hours after taking the laxative that the water made its way out of my body. In the morning, the same thing happened when I took the second dose – and I was still squirting liquid out of my arse a few hours after the colonoscopy.

Anyway, at 8:30am on Tuesday, I walked down the road to the doctor’s surgery and had my colonoscopy. The initial results were that there was no change from last time – some polyps, scarring from my colitis, but apparently no major issues. The doctor took a biopsy of a polyp and sent it for testing. He also told me that he wanted to change my medication because of sulfasalazine’s side effects: it causes infertility (reversible infertility, fortunately). He told me to come back next month once I’d used up my current prescription. He also gave me a print out of some pictures of the inside of my large intestine, and here it is:

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